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May 20, 2006

Five Civil, Respectful Questions For Mark Salter And John McCain

This has been updated since first posted.

John McCain was loudly heckled at his commencement address for the New School in New York. And even before his time at the podium, Jean Rohe, one of the student speakers, had some sharp things to say about him. She's written about her experience for the Huffington Post, which also reprints her remarks themselves.

Soon afterward Mark Salter, who's been close to McCain for some time and co-wrote several of his books, wrote a long comment to Rohe's post. As you can see, Salter felt what she said was disrespectful to McCain.

I take no position either way on that. However, I do believe in a respectful exchange of ideas. So I've written the below letter to Salter.

* * *

Mr. Salter,

In a recent comment on the Huffington Post, you expressed your deep unhappiness about the recent events at the New School commencement. You stated Jean Rohe's remarks were "an act of vanity," and said she and other New School students may in the future become ashamed of their actions.

By way of contrast, you wrote that Sen. John McCain believes "we owe each other our respect." In his address at the New School, he spoke about the importance of civility. And of course his website is called Straight Talk America.

I agree with Sen. McCain and yourself on the importance of mutual respect, civility, and straight talk. They are important at all times, but particularly at this difficult moment in our country's history.

Therefore, in the interest of advancing honest, civil dialogue even on contentious issues, I ask that you forward these questions to Sen. McCain and arrange for him to answer them fully and candidly.

As you'll see, these are inquiries about basic aspects of his political perspective. Without excusing the behavior of the hecklers at the New School commencement, I believe they acted out of frustration with our political system—a frustration I share. This frustration stems from the way prominent political figures (including but certainly not limited to Sen. McCain) are rarely even asked fundamental questions such as this, much less answer them forthrightly.

Many Americans are deeply cynical about politicians. I'm certain most readers of this will assume you and Sen. McCain will simply ignore this—or at best, respond with obfuscation.

I very much hope you'll seize this opportunity to prove them wrong. While I acknowledge these questions may be uncomfortable, I believe they're completely legitimate, and that in fact American democracy depends on the willingness of politicians to answer such inquiries. This is particularly the case when the questions have to do, as these do, with matters of live and death. (Also, while there's no particular reason you should care about my political views, if you have any questions for me I'm more than happy to answer them.)

1. Sen. McCain supported the Iraq war, and still believes it was justified. In a piece called "Despite Everything, the Right War," he wrote "even if Saddam had forever abandoned his WMD ambitions, it was still right to topple the dictator."

My first question is this: did Sen. McCain ever make this case in the build up to war in 2002 and 2003—that is, that it was irrelevant whether or not Saddam had or would ever get WMD?

2. The main reason Sen. McCain has given for his belief it was right to invade Iraq in the absence of WMD is Saddam's brutality against Iraqis, which he's compared to Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Saddam's worst actions against his own people took place during the eighties before the invasion of Kuwait, when he was an ally of the United States. Sen. McCain was elected to Congress in 1982, and then to the Senate in 1986.

Did Sen. McCain speak out about Saddam's most horrible crimes during this period—that is, while they were actually in progress?

3. The Reagan and first Bush administrations gave Saddam critical financial, political, and strategic support, even though they knew he was using chemical weapons against Iranians and his own people. In April, 1990, Republican Senator Alan Simpson (a close friend of Dick Cheney, who was then Secretary of Defense) met with Saddam and told him his problem lay "with the Western media and not with the U.S. government." Sen. Simpson also called the media "haughty and pampered." Just four weeks before this meeting, Saddam had executed Farzad Bazoft, a journalist with the British paper The Observer.

Again, Sen. McCain has compared Saddam's actions to those of Hitler. What would he say about politicians who offered comparable support to Hitler during the Holocaust? Does he believe the same should be said about Reagan, Bush Sr., and Simpson?

4. In 1995, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel defected from Iraq to Jordan. Kamel had supervised Iraq's WMD programs before the Gulf War in 1991. After his defection, Kamel told the CIA that Iraq had not been honest about its pre-Gulf War programs. However, he also told us Iraq had no remaining WMD and that its nuclear weapons program had ended four years previously. We now know everything Kamel said was accurate.

President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Powell all referred to Kamel in the build up to war. However, none of them told Americans that Kamel said Iraq had nothing.

Why does Sen. McCain believe Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell all left this out?

Also, Sen. McCain served on the commission investigating the intelligence failure regarding WMD and Iraq. The commission's report mentions Kamel repeatedly, but never refers to his statements that Iraq was disarmed.

Why does the report fail to mention this?

5. My last question has to do with domestic policy. Sen. McCain is a vocal supporter of President Bush's proposals to privatize Social Security. While touring the country speaking about Social Security with President Bush last year, Sen. McCain made many statements such as this one:

"Some of our friends, who are opposing this idea, say, 'Oh, you don't have to worry until 2042.' We wait until 2042, when we stop paying people Social Security?"

This is not accurate. There will never be a time when the government simply stops paying people Social Security. In fact, according to the projections of the Social Security Administration (to which Sen. McCain was referring), in 2042 Social Security will with no changes be able to pay recipients more than retirees receive today. The only question is whether without changes Social Security will be able to pay benefits even higher than that.

This is one of the most basic facts there is about the Social Security debate. With all respect, it's certainly something a senator should be expected to know, particularly if he's proposing significant alterations to the program.

Was Sen. McCain unaware what he was saying was false? If so, and he genuinely didn't know this basic aspect of how Social Security functions, will he apologize for not being informed before speaking out so strongly on this issue?

Thanks in advance to both you and Sen. McCain for addressing these questions. Again, I emphasize my genuine commitment to civil dialogue. I look forward to your response.

best regards,
Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at May 20, 2006 11:57 AM | TrackBack

Great post Jon, McCain wants everyone to believe he is a maverick and some liberals dote on him as if he were God's gift to politics and though he did try to implement election reform he is pure conservative in all other respects.

Posted by: rob payne at May 20, 2006 04:52 PM

I wonder if FoxNews will cover this, or has, and asked,

"why can't those spoilt, rich private-school attending brats at the New School behave themselves? They complained they got the same speech as the kids at Liberty University, and those spoilt, rich private-school attending brats didn't heckle the senator. So what's their problem?

I would like to encourage anybody reading this who wants to leave comments but normally doesn't, either out of timidity, or lack of a topic or an angle, to go watch FoxNews for me and see what they're saying, so I don't have to. Just a thought.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at May 20, 2006 09:25 PM

And, now that I've read your questions(I am unaccustomed to this "continue reading" feature and didn't notice it initially), I agree with the other commenters that the you pose some great questions for him. If McCain gets the nomination and does one of those absurd candidates-supposedly-meet-ordinary-people debates, it would be also be great if he heard them then, and we heard him being asked.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at May 20, 2006 09:36 PM

Good questions and I like the idea of leaving the questions there on the podium. The problem with situations like McCain's commencement address at the New School, or Condi's at Boston College, is that there is no room for debate in that kind of a forum (and it seems, not in any forum with these people.) Students and faculty who object are lectured about"listening to dissenting views" but in truth it is not a debate, nor is there an open question and answer period, so in the end they are forced to sit and listen politely to whatever outrageous speech the invited speaker has decided to make. If they protest they are called rude, closed-minded, or whatever. I applaud wholeheartedly what the students at New School did, particularly the speech that Jean Sara Rohe gave. Otherwise dissenters are simply marginalized and silenced.

Posted by: Suzy Grindrod at May 21, 2006 11:00 AM